Jess Damuck is trying to teach me how to artfully swirl yogurt at the bottom of a bowl. “Push the spoon out and rotate the bowl,” she instructs me from her home in Los Angeles. I keep pulling instead of pushing, splattering the yogurt on the dish. Even over Zoom, I can tell Damuck’s bowl looks flawless.
This is not surprising. Damuck, whose first cookbook, Salad Freak, comes out March 29, worked with Martha Stewart in some capacity for more than 10 years, starting as intern while she was in culinary school and climbing the ranks to food stylist and recipe developer, and one of her early duties was preparing the homemaking mogul’s lunch. More often than not, Stewart requested a salad, and she’d dole out some vague instruction, like, “I’m in the mood for something light and fresh and truly delicious today.” So Damuck would head to the farmers market or sometimes the fishmonger and then painstakingly pick out the droopiest leaves from a head of lettuce before building her salad.
“It was a duty that gave a lot of people anxiety because Martha has really specific tastes,” Damuck, 34, says. “But I was so excited to do it because it allowed me to get closer to Martha. I consider myself a perfectionist, so I really, really wanted to impress her.” Her most nerve-wracking presentation came when she constructed a shaved zucchini salad with pecorino cheese and slivered almonds. Shortly before serving it to Stewart, Damuck was warned by some coworkers that Stewart didn’t enjoy raw zucchini or “wet things” in her salad.
“Martha came down to the kitchen and it was just the two of us alone,” Damuck remembers. “I was standing there, terrified, thinking about how wet the zucchini was. And then she did have comments, but not about the zucchini. She was like, ‘I don’t usually enjoy both nuts and cheese in my salad.’ That’s about as harsh a criticism as I got. But she ate the whole thing.” Damuck had found her calling. Her creations came to be known as “three-hour salads” because that’s how long it took to shop, create, and curate the final product.
Thankfully, most of the recipes in Salad Freak do not take that long, though they’re not quick and simple either. Damuck’s monthly recipe newsletter is titled Something Fussy for a reason. “Just ‘throwing something together,’ that’s a fallacy,” she says. “If you’re going to do it—if you’re going to make a grocery list, and go to the store, and invite someone over to eat your food, make it special.”
Damuck takes umbrage at the trend in food media toward hacks and shortcuts and believes we should lose ourselves in the mundane tasks of rinsing a carrot or dicing an onion. She is devoted to mindfulness and mediation, and her bookshelf is stacked with guides to spirituality and self-improvement. “I don’t think salads are self-care per se, but also they are,” she says.
Read More: The 10 Most Anticipated Cookbooks of 2022
It’s a good time to publish a book about salads, albeit fussy ones. Buying and consuming mostly fruits and vegetables has long been cheaper than regularly purchasing meat, but now the country is slowly moving toward consuming more produce. Healthful eating advocates like cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who now produces and stars on the nutritionally minded children’s show Waffles + Mochi, have recently helped cooking vegetables at home go mainstream. According to a May 2021 survey from the International Food Information Council, one in four Americans reported eating more protein from plant sources than they did the year before, a trend that’s fueled the growth of the $29.4 billion plant-based foods industry that includes juggernauts like the Impossible Foods.
Some of Damuck’s recipes include meat, but they are decidedly plant-forward. “I just want to try to make people really excited about fresh food. Look, even I don’t make it to the farmers market every week. But it’s easier than ever to make the effort to eat well,” she says citing the accessibility of CSA boxes and the affordability of companies like Imperfect Foods that ship home cooks misshapen but still-tasty fruits and veggies for approximately the same price as the grocery store. She advocates eating seasonally and organizes the cookbook into winter, spring, summer, and fall. “It sounds pretentious, but I try not to eat tomatoes when it’s not the peak of summer,” she says. “When you eat ingredients at their absolute freshest, you don’t have to do anything to them to make them great.”
But it’s not just about taste for her. Throughout the book, she offers “styling tips” on how to make your food look its best. She still works as a freelance food stylist and has staged aspirational photos for Chrissy Teigen’s cooking website, Cravings. Damuck believes a variety of colors and textures can enhance the experience of a meal, particularly one as simple as salad. One tip in the book encourages cooks to fold their zucchini ribbons when piling them on a plate to create volume. “Honestly we know as much as people love eating, they love posting food on Instagram more than that,” she says. She even recommends a special curved serving spoon for plating dishes to create “a very chef-y swoop,” admitting in the book, “this is where the list may seem to get excessive, but I ask you to swoop and swirl many things.”
While I am a defender of the much-maligned category of one-use kitchen tools—I show Damuck three different citrus squeezers during our call—I must admit I’m skeptical that even salad acolytes will be willing to shell out for the special spoon. Then again, this is probably why I’m still failing to plate the yogurt in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I give up on achieving Instagram-ready perfection and add my chard, eggs, and honeyed chili oil on top. This concoction may not be what you think of when you imagine a salad. “I’m admittedly stretching the definition,” says Damuck, whose book also includes a salad based on a Nashville hot chicken sandwich and a “pizza salad,” which is basically greens piled on top of pizza dough.
Damuck, an on-and-off vegetarian (currently, she’s omnivorous), has been interested in vegetables and cooking since childhood. “I feel like I’ve always had a filing cabinet of flavors in my brain and it happens like a musician knows all the notes and can make music with it,” she says. As a teen she attended Ross School, a private high school in East Hampton, N.Y., that partnered with Quail Hill Farms for a food program that fostered an interest in eating seasonally and sustainably. “I was thinking about the way you can get addicted to sugar, I feel like I eat so many vegetables that when I don’t have them, I crave them,” she says.
But it was working for Stewart that turned her love of vegetables into an obsession. “Unless you get to the farmers market at 7 o’clock in the morning, you can’t get your hands on that specialty pink radicchio,” she says. “I’m often up, before brushing my teeth or having coffee, driving over to the farmers market dazed to make sure I can grab the best product before someone else snatches it up.” Before she moved from New York to L.A., Damuck says, most of her friends were other food stylists and recipe developers. It was only when she arrived in California, and befriended her neighbors by offering them the leftovers from the recipe-testing sessions for her cookbook, that she really began to hang out with more people outside the foodie world.
Damuck ventured out from under Stewart’s wing in 2015, but she still works as a freelancer for the icon often. And the two are still close. Stewart wrote the foreword to the book. They guest-starred together in an episode of Damuck’s partner Ben Sinclair’s HBO comedy, High Maintenance, in which Stewart declares a weed cookie decorated by Damuck to look like a snowflake “truly delicious.” Stewart recruited her to work on the VH1 series Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, and Damuck credits herself with feeding Snoop Dogg his first homemade crouton. (Snoop, in return, taught Damuck that the best way to get crisp bacon is to cook the strips in a pile on a pan rather than individually.) A friend gifted Damuck a kitchen towel with Stewart’s face on it for the holidays last year, and she proudly displays it on her oven’s handle.
Though she’s spent her career in the food world, Damuck is the rare non-celebrity cookbook author who has never worked in a restaurant. Sometimes she thinks people underestimate her because of that. “They’re like, ‘You’re not a chef. You’re a food stylist,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘I’ve cooked a million meals for Martha Stewart, and that’s the harshest critic I can think of.’”